Inclusive Language 101
Language is something that many of us take for granted. It’s easy for us to assume that the words we choose to describe people with, apply to them. And it’s even easier to take the inherent biases built into our language for granted. For example, anytime someone calls something ‘black’ or dark it usually means something bad. But when someone calls something ‘white’ they are referring to its purity, goodness, or lack of tarnish. These things, whether we recognize it or not, leave us with inherent biases in the way that we view race. Other words that we use suggest biases that exist in other realms.
Gender bias is a big example of this. When we discuss people who are professionals, depending on what the profession is, we feel the need to add gendered signifiers. If it is a job, like a doctor, people feel the need to point out that a woman is in this position if that is the case. This is suggesting, in an unstated way, that these jobs are male professions or that women are not suited to doing them. Our use of language in this way just further codifies bias into our minds. If bias is in even our language, then it is quite difficult to remove from our society because it has become practice or habit, and is often used out of blatant bigotry. It is easier for people to excuse bias, or accept that people agree with their action upon biases when our language supports their actions. This happens in the same way that making rape jokes can comfort people who rape, to believe that their actions are more prevalent than they really are, or that their behavior is condoned by much of society.
We can begin to reveal biases in our culture, and prevent them from becoming more normalized by using inclusive language, that does not suggest color is equated to goodness and that professions are gendered. Similarly, the use of inclusive language is important regarding other types of gender bias. We can help eliminate gender bias by not equating people’s genitals with their gender, or vice-versa. The idea of biological determinism, which is the idea that your x/y chromosomes are what determine your gender, is an outdated one; we can see that the idea of having two genders has influenced biological studies about ‘sex’. By ‘sex’ I mean the gender marker, which doctors decided that you most closely fit biologically and therefore assigned to you at birth.
This point is important for people who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. If someone asks you to refer to them with different gender pronouns than the ones you assumed they use, use the ones they asked you to use. Culturally defining everyone from the perspective of ideas developed from existing power imbalances, such as a binary construct of gender, only continues to perpetuate bias. Consider these tips when making decisions about your language:
Don’t call sexually active women whores. These individuals are in control of their sex lives, and that agency is their right; and, it’s probably good for them.
Don’t refer to professions in a way that suggests the gender of the person in the job.
Don’t use language that presupposes racial hierarchies. For example, don’t call people the black sheep of their families.
Do use more descriptive words, rather than words that discount people’s actions or identities.
And most importantly, when people ask you to change your language regarding their identities, respect that request and defend it.
- Amanda Copeland, Women’s Studies Intern for the CWC